The Dreams of Westy

George Silk/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
President Lyndon Johnson reviewing troops with General William Westmoreland at the Cam Ranh Bay air base during the Vietnam War, 1966

Here is a book you can tell by its cover. In this deeply critical biography, Lewis Sorley argues that William Childs Westmoreland (1914–2005) was responsible for the American loss of South Vietnam, where from 1964 to 1968 he was the military commander. The immaculately turned-out, chisel-jawed general had been for the most part admired until he was elevated to command in Saigon. But some of those who served with and under him during his four years in Vietnam—ambassadors, fellow generals, even a sergeant major of the Army—considered that after Westmoreland took charge in Saigon this vain, incurious, and sometimes dishonest man proved unfit for supreme command.

For years, most books on the Vietnam War reviewed in these pages held that Washington’s policymakers underestimated or ignored Vietnamese nationalism and other realities. Some of those books concentrated on the early centuries of Vietnamese struggles against imperial China, and their later defeat of their French colonial masters. Nowadays we learn that American commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, having studied the Vietnam War and its history at the military academies and in command schools, determined not to repeat the mistakes in Vietnam and, more significantly, read studies that showed how the war could have been won. Andrew Krepinevich published an early exposition of this view, The Army and Vietnam, in 1986. There were others. In his 2006 book, Triumph Forsaken, for example, and in at least one subsequent article, Mark Moyar emphasized that beginning with White House collusion in the murder of President Ngo Dinh Diem in 1963, US policies crippled a possibly winnable war.

In 1999, Lewis Sorley, a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran who served in the Pentagon in the office of the Army Chief of Staff when Westmoreland held that post, and in the CIA, published A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America’s Last Years in Vietnam. In it he maintained that General Creighton Abrams, Westmoreland’s successor in Vietnam, all but defeated the Vietnamese enemy. That near victory, Sorley claimed, was undermined by politicians in Washington; they were rattled by a nervous public, a fickle press, pictures of body bags, and, after the 1968 Tet Offensive, by television images of dead Vietcong inside what misleadingly appeared to be the American embassy.

Surrounded by dead Vietcong, Westmoreland was not boasting when, after the Tet Offensive, he proclaimed in the embassy compound, “The enemy’s well-laid plans went afoul” and declared, truthfully, that no Vietcong had entered the building. But he was not believed. Television pictures of dead Americans and guerrillas in Saigon convinced many at home that years of fighting and heavy American casualties were a costly disaster.

In his new book Sorley makes plain his scorn for…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.